Dealing with the cynicism encountered with managers from Former Soviet Union (FSU)

In my previous post, I pointed out some of the characteristics I have encountered in managers from the FSU with whom I work .

In this post, I will provide 3 tips on how to deal with the cynicism, which can be tough to take for western yes-we-can OD consultant/manager.

1) There is no need to counter every cynical remark that is made. Just listen to  these comments as “this can be tough”. It’s often no more than that.

2) Use these cynical comments as a springboard to work out a rational set of risk mitigation tactics.

3) When a very, very cynical person comes your way (and they do exist), use a paradoxical intervention, such as “So there is nothing to do, we need to avoid wasting out time”. I have been surprised at how well this has worked.

I train managers and consultants to better manage folks from FSU. Lot of what you need to do can be counterintuitive, so it takes time.

If you succeed, you will generally have a hard working and dedicated resource on your team, albeit cynical.

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Working with managers from the Former Soviet Union (FSU)-revised

This post will describe my experience is working with people from the former Soviet Union. I do not suggest that I describe anything more than my experience. Every pattern has exceptions, we all have met worldly Americans, disorganized Germans, loud Thais and humble Israelis. But there are patterns of culture.

I have worked with about 120 people from the FSU in intensive consulting relationships. Over time, I began to see things that repeat themselves despite different types of business, different ages, and a different time frame for having left the FSU. The people I have worked/work with are based in Germany, the UK, the US, Canada and Israel.

I certainly stand against political correctness. However, the goal of the following list is to characterize, not stereotype,

1) Relationships start from deep mistrust, then migrate to trust very slowly.

2) There is a lot of cynicism, and most of it is healthy. Cynicism is the parallel of the American yes-we-can, except it is no-we-can’t. However, it is a starting point from which to move on to: how can we do it anyway.
This stands in sharp contrast to yes-we-canners, who suddenly develop cold feet.

3) There is a lot of compassion and true caring, masked by toughness. The talk is  hard and the heart is compassionate.

4) There is a lot of passion, a lot of investment in problem solving, and a lot of emotion. 

5) Organizational life is about details, not high level abstractions. There is very low tolerance for sloganeering. It is all about pragmatism. Idealism and Utopian ideas are severely scorned.

6) Transparency is viewed with deep suspicion; it is often viewed as pure stupidity. People need to protect themselves.

7) Things are thought out and thrashed through in informal meetings with trusted people. Formal meetings are more ceremonial.

8) Communication style is slightly dour with little place for humour in formal setting, although informally, the dourness melts away!

9) Win win is seen as a western quirk. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose-is far more prominent.

10) There is a deep pride in professionalism. There is far more respect for experts than for branding, to be sure. And certainly there is more loyalty to maintaining one’s reputation as an expert than managing one’s career.

11) Political correctness -forget it.

12) When something goes wrong, there is more focus on solving the problem than fixing the process or lessons learned. People accept that shit happens.

My satiric Gloria blog has an absurd character called Comrade Carl Marks. Many former Russians love this colourful character, yet Americans/Canadians have told me that Comrade Carl is a bit insulting. Very telling difference. (By the way, readers of the Gloria blog as me if I speak Russian. I do not. But I do know about 200 swear words).

And finally, I LOVE working with this population. It is very hard to break in and gain access to trust, especially for someone with some semi -Anglo like type like me, but once you break it, things get done.


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Missing Montreal; je me souviens

In my long career as an OD consultant, I have had the opportunity to work in Montreal about a dozen times.

I used the time in Montreal to visit my parents and grandparents graves, meet with old friends, ski at Mt Chevreuil  and speak as much French as I could. I also walked for hours and hours on the mountain.

Today, of all days, I have been inundated by pleasant memories from Montreal. Today, Montreal has been visiting me today. Today, Montreal chose what I remember.

  • The Montreal snow has a very squeaking sound when underfoot. I loved walking in the extreme cold, and few things in life are as piercing cold as the Montreal winter.
  • The 17 bus used to take me to Parc Belmont Park in Cartierville  The driver called out all the stations along the way in French and English. Finally:  “Parc Belmont-Belmont Park. Tout le monde descend svp, please get off the bus.”
  • My grandfather owned  a boxing ring at the Medical Arts Building on Sherbrooke and Cote de Neiges. When I was a boy, I would visit him at the gym.  In those days, telephone numbers had a name as a prefix. The telephone number of his gym was Fitzroy 4022. This was in 1957.
  • When the Metro opened in Montreal, I learnt all the names of the stations by heart. And I remember the smell of the rubber tires on the Metro. I worked at the Worlds’ Fair in 1967 at The Human Cell, La Cellule humaine. My supervisor, Art Laurent, was French Canadian. We used to talk a lot after work in French. I learnt more French from old Art than from all the years in the Protestant School Board’s schools that I attended.
  • I spent many summers at Lac-des-Écorces far north of Montreal.  In the evenings, I used to go either to Val Barrette or Mont Laurier to eat. And believe you me, that was a very good way of learning French. I miss having French all around me.
  • Garland Terminus was a bus interchange station.The trip to the dentist entailed 3 buses: 116, 17 (change at Garland) and 62. Everyone interchanged at Garland.

Sorry to have bored you all. Next time, back of OD. Promise.

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OD’s fate is “signed and sealed”

According to Jewish tradition, one’s fate is signed on New Year’s Day (Wednesday evening, Sept 24th) and one’s fate is sealed on the Day of Atonement, which falls the week after New Year’s. The days between the signing and the sealing of one’s fate are the Days of Awe, when supposedly the verdict can be overturned. (For those of us who resent having religion rammed down our throats, this is a punishing time to live in a semi-theocracy.)

However, while I am agnostic and I spend these “holy” days at the beach doing non-holy activities, the tradition and metaphor are useful.

OD’s fate is signed and sealed. There are many reasons why OD is rotting away. Follow this link if you want the gory details. The grisly execution of OD has been in progress for the decade. Unlike the executions we all see on TV as of late (which happen in my liberal neighbourhood), the dying process of OD is prolonged.

So what is there to atone about?

Well, universities and colleges and other institutes of learning are pumping out OD consultants as if the demand for OD is insatiable. This is an absurdity because there is very little work in OD for the new generation of OD “technicians”, unless they want to work for some canned-training company or support degenerative BPRs which are the very antithesis of OD.

Students spend years and years learning a disappearing profession which is self-destructing and being cannibalized. I must get 50 calls and emails a month asking me “if I need an assistant” or “where can I find some work, anything”. My message to these people is loud and clear-you chose the wrong profession. Go get retrained.

Yes there is plenty of work if you have been on the road as long as I have and have built up a reputation and areas of domain expertise (in my example global organizations, new product introduction and mergers). But there is almost nothing around for the newcomer, who wants to do OD the right way, not as an order taker for “3 workshops on people skills, medium rare”

And the universities need to atone for misleading thousands of people who have made the wrong career choice. Probably they cannot, because universities themselves are trapped in their own paralysing paradigm.

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Creating Value and large scale change via being Eclectic

The dumbing of OD has led to use of tinned OD solutions, superimposed on complex organizational situations. Management via IT process and the need of managers  to look great as soon as as possible has led to massive use of these tinned solutions. When these tinned solutions fail, the vendor can be blamed and another “vendor” hired.

There is another much better of doing things however, as this post illustrates. I will illustrate a complex project based on a totally eclectic approach.

A large corporation hired me to work on a prolonged crisis between the central HQ-based Technical Presales Team and the various RSTs, i.e., Regional Sales Teams in South East Asia, Japan, China, Europe and the Americas.

There had been turf wars between the HQ-based function and each of RSTs, yet the reasons for the turf wars were different. Ideally it would have made sense to decentralize Technical Presales, but due to the lack of product experts, it was impossible.

A well-known consulting firm had just failed in this very endeavour, leaving behind a bible filled with process flow, roles and responsibilities, and what have you. My mandate was to `create uniformity“ so that everyone `works to processes”. I turned this mandate down, and suggested a more eclectic approach.

My point of contact was a very competent HR manager, very unlike my Gloria character. The HR manager and I agreed that the solution may not be uniform, and the starting point will not be the bible of processes, rather, we will do whatever works, with a very eclectic approach.

Quickly I discovered that there was huge variance in the HQ Technical Presales –RST interface between regions.

·      In some countries, the sales force was equipped only with `connections“ and after clients’ doors were opened, the RST expected that technical pre sales do everything else, including signing the deal and legal work.

·      In other countries, the RST was highly technical and all they wanted from Technical Presales was promotional marketing material!

·      In another set of countries, the Technical Presales Team was seen as “bunch of spies for corporate“ serving as an unneeded gate to prevent selling of customization of the products to local needs. Thus, the RST did everything alone, bypassing Technical Presales; however corporate could not build the customizations that the RSTs sold.

My work did not focus on all RSTs at once. First, I did a show case project with one area (Europe) and the change was very positive. The CEO and senior executives bragged about the `turn-round“ between Europe RST-HQ Technical Presales in several senior forums. Eventually, my project expanded to each RST and a 3 year effort was crowned as a major success.

The solution in each RST looks very different. In some RST`s, we worked on trust and communications, in other RST`s, we worked on mutual expectations. In yet other RST`s, we needed to replace managers with negative political agenda. In the Technical Presales team, there was a 10% increase in headcount and a massive investment in travel and personal effectiveness coaching.

The procurement department in this company had recommended not hiring me. There was no scope of work I was willing to commit to a priori, I could not estimate budget, and my travel expenses were high.

Three months into the second year of the project, the Head of Procurement told me that he heard that `the results are worth the investment, even though you (Allon) did not handle the initial  negotiation “appropriately”. And he has a point.

All thru the project, HR provided me with air cover, promoting the eclectic approach of tinkering, seeing what works and solving the problem.

No workshops or OD pre-packaged modules were used.

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Don’t ignore the underworld of poor team work.

No other discipline can deliver results as powerful as can OD in the domain of teamwork.

This having been said, too many OD practitioners look at teamwork out of context and proceed to work with organic teams or “cousin groups”  to develop team effectiveness before examining the context in which the team operates.

This post will focus on what an OD practitioner needs to both look at and deal with in order to create a context for team work, regardless of the specific team.

1) Does the organization have an expectation that clearer defined roles and responsibilities as well as adherence to process are essential to team work?

Because the truth is:  teamwork’s added value is that it compensates for the inability of process and total role clarity to enable the work flow. Often poor team work is a result of overdosing on process and clarity  to control work flow.

Creating a context for teamwork entails working on teamwork as a compensation for the system in order to get it to work.

2) Does the organization recruit team players at the top?

Because if the organization is led by people who maximise their subsystems. there “ain’t gonna be no teamwork”.

Creating a context for teamwork entails working on the optimization of subsystems at the top of the organization.

3) Does the organization fund face to face interaction?

No amount of technology can compensate for the alienation inherent in the global configuration of organizations. People who do not meet face to face will not be able to work well as a team, especially if the issues at hand are complex and need a lot of healthy heated interaction to solve.

Creating a context for teamwork entails insisting that face to face dialogue is budgeted.

4) Does the organization overcommit to its customers?

If the organization has hallucinatory  commitments to its customers, the entire organization will be covering their ass to show that they are not guilty for the inevitable slips that will occur in both schedules and costs. Teamwork in over committed organizations is a critical success factor, but very rare.

Creating a context for teamwork entails removing the “blame game” and working on the over commitment, not just the team work.

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New mindset and tools for middle managers upon the establishment of a union

The mindset of middle managers needs to change upon the establishment of a union. As the union flexes its muscles and establishes its power base, middle management must rethink its role domain and retool. This post related to changes which need to occur in the mindset of middle management.

  • Middle management needs to internalize that managing in a unionized shop is a new ball game. Part of the ball game is that senior management may be broadcasting that “nothing has changed”. Senior management is probably sending out the message: “you keep doing your job and we (whoever that is, probably Legal) will take care of the union”. However, this message is problematic as it illustrates the one of the very reasons why the union was established, eg, arrogance.
  • Over time, most unions become a partner in strategic and operational decision making. The more that management tries to make decisions “above their heads” of the union, the more militant the unions will become. Middle managers need to ensure that they engage their own senior management to avoid being used as an ineffective and damaging way to bypass legitimate union interests.
  • Middle management needs to understand the dynamic of union activity, understand the agendas of the union, build trust and proactively work with the union.  There is no “working around” the union via dealing with the so called “more sane” employees.
  • The employees will always defer to the union, because the union will take better care of them than management. So never bad mouth the union.
  • Partner with the union on a personal level and strategically. Senior managers come and go. The union is “built to last”. So it’s better learn about the new partner-for-life than working to neutralize their power.
  • It takes up to two years for a union leadership to exercise their muscles. But they do get strong and cannot be “managed” by an external legal firm. So learn to respect their interests early on in the game.


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Stop beating the dead horse of reorganizations and process clarity

In a recent post, I suggested that many organizational regulatory mechanisms that are in place to standardize organizational life may never work well anymore, because of a paradigm shift in what way organizations work.

In this post, I will spell out 3 doomed  mechanisms.

1) Enhancing Employee Engagement

The labour force appears to clearly understand that engagement is too often a manipulation which means” “bust your ass and do whatever it takes to help the company succeed”, even though management will and does fire staff without blinking an eyelid to make results look better in the short run.

Enhancing employee engagement as presently understood is  futile effort; there is a need to move beyond engagement sloganeering to address the need for a new contract between management and labour.

2) Frequent changes in structure

Management often relies on reorg after reorg as a medicine for nearly all organizational ailments. Changes of structure do not solve problems of trust, lack of transparency nor do they compensate for incompetence.

Managers use this medicine and board members “put up” with these reorganizations because it is “doing”, and buys time. Yes, what I am saying is that the motive for reorgs is often political.

OD consultants over 40 know (and all staff) know that these frequent reorganizations take place in order to avoid change.

3) Obsessive Clarification of the process

Process needs some clarity but organizational reality is very, very complex and one cannot define away complexity via process. In extreme global complexity, organizations need to develop appropriate staffing, team work, and cooperation instead of obsessing about process quality. 

In the dying OD profession, those of us who do still work should not spend too much time to make outdated mechanisms work.

OD should focus on implementing change and not reorganizations, rebuilding the social contract between management and labour, and building teamwork and trust.

Clients which smell the coffee desist from beating the dead horse of more reorgs and overdosing on process clarity. And those who don’t use change managers and OD consultants the wrong way.

Follow me @AllonShevat


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Open source and OD

Organizations use a plethora of IT, managerial and  behavioural systems to drive operational  uniformity and create predictability of deliverables. Some of these systems are apparently more coercive (IT) whilst others are more intangible.

Conventional wisdom has it that these systems do get organizations to be effective, even though there are deviations, aberrations and exceptions that need to be managed.

My assumption about organizations is that there are many people who try to beat the systems and/or work around them because of human nature and cultural preference.  Many cultures have educated people that systems do not work as well as relationships or negotiating.

As far the systems themselves,  I see organizations as more and more “open source”. By that I mean that control and command systems just do not have the capabilities to get people to behave/act in the prescribed manner. The real control of what  goes on is dispersed, and/or a matter of good will.  So, some of the formal mechanisms which are in place may never work well any more.

And this needs to be factored into the OD consultant’s value proposition to the client. OD should support adaptation to this new reality, and not get the old model to keep working when it’s falling apart.

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Dealing with the imperfection of OD

In one of my last posts, I dwelt on the natural imperfection of the OD endeavour.

Unlike the OD product vendor who sells a cock-and-bull story about the results that can be “delivered” by the application of his/her OD product (such as the 2 hour Wow-Wow Post Merger Integration Module), the OD practitioner who provides a professional service is faced providing an imperfect service (by nature).

Here are a few tips, based on ideas that I have used which I have found to be helpful.

1) In your Sales effort with new clients, emphasize the senior managers and successful organizations with whom you have worked over time; avoid focusing on what you know how to do and/or deliver.

2) Negotiating with corporate procurement (whose role is to nail down the vendor down with a clear statement of deliverables) needs to be avoided at all costs. Your internal client should be your interface to Procurement. If the client cannot do so, then you are probably working with someone too junior to do any meaningful work anyway.

3) Goals of the OD intervention need to be constantly reassessed; as a matter of fact, the ongoing reassessment of goals in a major achievement of the OD process!

4) Avoid the use of all measurement tools to evaluate OD work. OD interventions have huge impact; none of them can be isolated and measured.

5) Contractually, ensure that it is easy to fire you. This can take lots of heat away off defining success criteria of a project.

6) Admit mistakes and do so as they happen. Model how imperfection can be used as a powerful development tool.

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